Kate Merlin

The Project

Kate (she/her/hers) will provide legal representation, policy advocacy, and holistic post-eviction services to low-income Western North Carolinians experiencing housing insecurity.

The United States faces an eviction crisis that disproportionately harms low-income renters and historically marginalized communities. Western North Carolina lacks substantive eviction diversion programs, subjecting tenants to the long-term societal, health, and economic consequences of eviction. Eviction poses a significant threat to residents in the greater Asheville area due to wealth disparities, lengthy subsidized housing waitlists, and a lack of affordable housing. Without eviction protection and affordable housing, low-income and marginalized communities suffer poor health, barriers to employment and education, and lasting harm.

Having experienced housing insecurity as a child and watching her mother experience eviction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kate was driven to find creative ways to help individuals at all stages of a housing crisis. She has seen firsthand the mental and physical strain that eviction processes place upon individuals and has vowed through her project to address cycles of instability and poverty that often follow in the wake of housing insecurity.

Fellowship Plans

Through legal representation, policy advocacy, and post-eviction mitigation strategies, the North Carolina Housing Justice Project will tackle eviction at all stages of the process. During her Fellowship term, Kate will employ a three-pronged approach to provide tenants with holistic eviction protection.

First, she will seek to increase housing stability and affordability in the region. Second, she will focus on securing access to justice for tenants through eviction diversion programs, policy advocacy, and direct representation. Finally, she will mitigate post-eviction fallout by creating a community alliance to provide tenants with access to resources such as storage facilities, moving assistance, and temporary housing services.

My project was born from my belief that housing is a human right and that no mother, no child, and no person should be subjected to the trauma of eviction.

Kate Merlin /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Mary Claire Kelly’s (she/her/hers) project at ACE will assist local grassroots movements in Massachusetts with legal advocacy for climate and environmental justice in communities of color and low-income communities that have a long history of subjection to environmental racism. This project adds capacity and momentum for environmental and climate justice advocates in Massachusetts as they build towards a sustainable and equitable future.

Fellowship Plans

Through this Fellowship, Mary Claire will help communities tackle current environmental justice issues and build legal and policy avenues to address the future issues that the climate crisis will bring. As a movement lawyer, she will assist grassroots coalition members and residents of communities affected by pollution with legal advice, action, and strategy. This work will include helping local and state efforts to implement climate justice policy and providing legal assistance to marginalized communities advocating for a livable environment.

Mary Claire entered law school for the purpose of becoming a public interest attorney. She developed this project out of a commitment to the ethics of movement lawyering, and out of frustration and anxiety about the economic and social factors that have led us to climate crisis.

It will take all of us to turn our collective future away from climate chaos and towards a path of healing and equity. I am honored to do my part through this Fellowship with the amazing people at ACE.

Mary Claire Kelly /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Norrel (she/her/hers) will uplift the experiences of her community and provide direct legal representation and policy advocacy in Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region to ensure low-income residents have access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Lack of access to safe and affordable drinking water is a rapidly growing environmental justice issue disproportionately impacting communities of color and lower-income communities. As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, water affordability should be no more than 3% of a household’s monthly income. Yet, some Detroiters pay more than 20% of their monthly income toward their water bills. Detroit residents shoulder crippling debt from unaffordable water bills in a city plagued by failing infrastructure.

Detroit residents who cannot afford their water bills face displacement of their children and homelessness. Additionally, having no water or plumbing infrastructure has been linked to a rise in infectious diseases worldwide, even in the U.S. In 2016, Michigan experienced a Hepatitis B outbreak; a study found that water inaccessibility contributed to the spread of the illness. Detroit needs a permanent equity-based water affordability plan to address structural inequality and increase the quality of life for residents.

Born in Flint, raised in Detroit, and being personally affected by water issues compelled Norrel to join the fight for water affordability. Black and poor citizens are routinely and disproportionately negatively affected by human rights abuses.

Fellowship Plans

Building on the foundation that water warriors before her have laid, during her Fellowship, Norrel will provide direct legal representation and policy advocacy to ensure low-income residents have access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. The current legal framework provides little protection for Detroiters’ water rights. Norrel will work as an advocate for residents, helping them appeal to correct water bills, enroll in existing low-income payment programs, and eliminate the practice of shutting off water for non-payment.

Media

WMU-cooley Graduate Selected as an Equal Justice Works Fellow

Water is a human right! Every human being deserves access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water.

Norrel Hemphill /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Meghan (she/her/hers) will represent low-wage workers in wage theft cases and advocate for improved labor standards enforcement in North Carolina, targeting industries that exploit immigrant workers and workers of color.

The severe underenforcement of employment laws allows employers to unlawfully underpay workers without fear of penalty. Low-wage workers in Charlotte, North Carolina have inadequate access to employment legal services to seek remedies for wage theft, which can result from refusal to pay minimum wage or overtime and the intentional misclassification of workers. Meghan’s project will support low-wage workers in industries that have long exploited workers in the Charlotte region, such as those in construction and food services, as well as the rapidly growing warehouse and delivery sector.

Rather than protecting the most vulnerable workers, many employment laws were designed to exploit Black Americans and immigrants. Meghan is eager to improve the enforcement of existing employment laws in her home state, while also advocating for laws that reflect the numerous ways in which low-wage workers are exploited in the workplace.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Meghan will bolster the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s ability to address the underlying employment-related reasons for many clients’ income instability. She will work closely with community organizations to lead workplace rights training events, help workers file administrative complaints with the North Carolina Department of Labor and litigate wage theft cases. She will also collaborate with legal services and advocacy partners who are pushing for greater employer accountability for labor abuses at the state level, with a focus on including workers in labor standards monitoring and enforcement.

It is critical to address the role that Southern states have played in exploiting immigrant workers and workers of color.

Meghan Lucas /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Sarah (she/her/hers) will evaluate North Carolina prisons to ascertain confinement conditions of people with mental illness and recommend a strategy to keep these individuals out of solitary confinement-like conditions.

North Carolina prisons have rates of serious mental illness nearly four times higher than the general population. Prison mental health treatment programs are insufficient to meet mental health needs, and even existing treatment options reportedly go under-utilized. Although solitary confinement harms mental health, people with mental illness are reportedly often placed into these units in violation of state policy. The exacerbation of mental illness in prison remains difficult to halt because advocates and legislators have limited information about what happens behind prison walls. Keeping people with mental illness out of harmful prison conditions requires a comprehensive knowledge of how prisons actually operate.

Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder as a teenager and recovered because she had privileged access to high-quality healthcare. After studying the systematic criminalization of mental illness, she became determined to expand quality care access to marginalized populations, particularly for people in prison who lack agency over care.

Fellowship Plans

Sarah will research and collect data firsthand on the mental health treatment and solitary confinement units in seven North Carolina prisons. She will then use empirical evidence to form recommendations for legal advocacy aimed at improving prison conditions for people with mental illness. Her project will culminate in a report and will give Disability Rights North Carolina a path forward in advocating for reform on these issues. Her findings will also be utilized by partner organizations and the state government.

Media

An Advocate for Mental Health

A person’s opportunity to recover from disease is a human right that should not be impeded by prison walls.

Sarah Hoffman /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

MacKenzie reduces evictions, subsidy terminations, homelessness, and family separations for youth and families impacted by interpersonal and community violence in Chicago through holistic legal advocacy and extended representation.

Legal Aid Chicago’s housing clients, particularly Black youth and families, disproportionately need supports to address trauma and interpersonal violence but are more likely to be met with discrimination and punishment, including through subsidized housing policies. MacKenzie represents families who seek support because of a safety concern or who have a loved one who is discriminatorily alleged to create a safety concern and refers them to community-based supports. By centering survivor goals and addressing unfounded uses of housing policy to target young people, this project reduces evictions, subsidy terminations, homelessness, and family separations, particularly for Black youth and their families.

MacKenzie is indebted to Chicago’s organizers, particularly youth of color for educating her on the difference between accountability and punishment before she attended law school, and for continuing to fight for and model a better Chicago.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, MacKenzie has:

  • Provided direct representation to more than 40 families impacted by the community or intimate partner violence, and/or discriminatorily alleged to be a safety concern
  • Interviewed, advised, and provided referrals for over 80 tenants dealing with a variety of landlord-tenant matters, including conditions issues, moves within a subsidy program, utility lock-outs, and COVID-19-related protections
  • Enforced the rights of survivors to move for safety, end a lease in an emergency, or remove an abusive family member from a lease
  • Enforced the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of Black parents and youth impacted by trauma or mental health diagnoses
  • Conducted seven presentations for community-based organizations and other providers on topics including evictions and fair housing issues
  • Collaborated with eight groups and attended 30 coalition-building meetings to advance her work
  • Investigated systemic racial discrimination issues in Chicago rental housing

Next Steps

In the next year, MacKenzie plans to:

  • Continue to represent youth and families impacted by discrimination and violence and develop best practices for achieving safety for survivors of non-intimate partner violence
  • Continue to investigate and develop strategies to challenge systemic racial discrimination in Chicago rental housing
  • Share lessons learned from working to keep families safe and together in subsidized housing

While only creative, system-change work will transform Chicago into an equitable city, movement-aligned legal advocacy provides a key tool to reduce the current impacts of violence and discrimination—and empower young people to join these efforts.

MacKenzie Speer /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow